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New Godzilla film imagines a strong Japan pushing back against the US

Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, center, arrives aboard the U.S. Navy's aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan on Oct. 18, 2015.

PAOLO BAYAS/U.S. NAVY

By ANNA FIFIELD | The Washington Post | Published: September 24, 2016

KAWASAKI, Japan - Even after 52 years and 31 ways of destroying Tokyo, it seems Japanese people still can't get enough of Godzilla and his catastrophic ways.

"This is my fifth time to see it," Iori Yanagi, a 30-something woman said before a special screening of the latest Godzilla movie, released here as "New" or "Real" Godzilla.

Since it opened at the end of July, the film - directed by Hideaki Anno, the renowned creator of "Evangelion," an anime television series - has crashed through the box office like, well, like a monster through a metropolis. The film has sold almost five million tickets since it was released in Japan at the end of July and has made $70 million at the box office, making it the highest grossing live action film here this year. It will be distributed in the United States starting next month as "Godzilla Resurgence."

"I love Anno's anime, especially 'Evangelion,' and I was moved to see how he created this Godzilla movie," said Yanagi, who recently attended an "utterance allowed" screening of the film, during which members of the audience were allowed to make as much noise as they wanted.

"Be careful!" they yelled as the monster raged toward the Japanese capital. "Prime minister, prime minister!" they shouted as the leader convened emergency meetings of bureaucrats to deal with the threat. And, perhaps in a uniquely Japanese moment (after all, this is a country where fax machines are still in widespread use), they cheered as a convoy of photocopiers was wheeled into a task-force center.

Yanagi was wearing strings of toy train cars around her neck and carrying a bottle of water, props to wave at the appropriate moment. Her friend was dressed as the lunch lady who appears for perhaps five seconds, bringing rice balls to the civil servants working around the clock.

Elsewhere in the movie house, people wore homemade Godzilla heads and waved signs, while four men caused an eruption when they showed up in hazardous-waste coveralls and gas masks. Everyone waved glow-sticks as if at a rock concert.

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This iteration has Godzilla, a monster created out of nuclear waste, emerging from Tokyo Bay and cutting a path of radioactive destruction around the capital, then into the heart of the world's biggest city itself.

The movie franchise was first conceived with Godzilla as a metaphor for the atomic bomb as a defeated Japan got back on its feet after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Now, in the wake of the 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the theme takes on a different meaning. It is impossible to watch the flummoxed bureaucrats, the scenes of the boats being washed ashore and the fears of radiation without thinking of the tsunami that devastated the northeast coast of Japan five years ago.

When the United States suggests a nuclear strike on the monster, people object, saying that Tokyo will become a "zone that is difficult to return to" - using the same phrase applied to the area around Fukushima.

Kenji Tamaki, a journalist for the Mainichi newspaper, wrote that the film portrayed "the deep anxieties" of modern Japan, parodying a political elite that is in crisis.

"Interminable meetings, bureaucrats' reports read in somnolent monotones, an emergency that just seems to go on and on and on," he wrote in the left-leaning paper. "Echoes of real-life Japan circa spring 2011, when the government descended into chaos in the face of the Fukushima nuclear crisis."

But the film also portrays a militarily stronger, more confident Japan. The prime minister, putting down the phone after speaking to the American president, mutters about how the United States is always giving orders.

Last year, the Japanese government "reinterpreted" the pacifist constitution to allow its military to come to the defense of its allies, slightly loosening the postwar shackles that the United States placed on Japan. As a next step, the real-life prime minister, Shinzo Abe, wants to revise the constitution.

While these changes have been controversial in Japan, there was no reticence during this shout-out Godzilla screening. The audience broke out in loud cheers when Japanese fighter jets, Apache helicopters and the new Type 10 tanks let fire at Godzilla. "Use all the weapons you need!" the prime minister in the movie declared.

The film has a "soft nationalism" at its core, said Mark Schilling, a film critic for the Japan Times newspaper. "There's a sense that 'we Japanese have to do this ourselves, we can't rely on the Americans to help us,' " he said.

Abe himself has endorsed the film. "I heard that the chairman of the Joint Staff Council and members of the self-defense forces appear in the film and are depicted as being very heroic," Abe told a military gathering earlier this month . "I think that [Godzilla's] popularity is rooted in the unwavering support that the public has for the self-defense forces."

The film can be seen as marking something of a new level in Japan's postwar recovery, 71 years after its surrender, analysts say. Japanese people can come out of the movie theater and feel proud to be Japanese.

The United States doesn't come off particularly well in the film. The president sends an impossibly young and glamorous national security aide to help Japan - a Japanese-American named Kayoko Ann Patterson who wants to go shopping at Zara before getting to work.

But eventually, she comes around to the Japanese point of view. "I won't go back because I don't want my country to make the third mistake in the country of my grandmother," the character says when the Pentagon, promoting a nuclear strike, advises Americans to leave. Images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki appear on the screen.

"The arrogant American comes around to the side of the good guys," Schilling said, "not because she sees the light as an American, but because she has Japanese blood in her."

For some of the moviegoers at the shout-out screening, though, the latest Godzilla wasn't about politics or military revival but about banding together.

"When you see other audience members engaged, it feels like you're all rooting for the characters," said Yanagi, wearing the train necklace. "I feel sense of unity among the audience."

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